A Message to the Shepherds

 In Location

“But we’ve always done it that way.” Sometimes blind tradition gets in the way of common sense. It is the same complaint heard in many different contexts. I heard this in a more unusual context recently.

My wife and I were high in the mountains of China at 4000m of altitude. We had spent one hour in a landrover driving to a village of only 40 families. The sun beat down on our heads as we trekked through the potato fields and up the hillside to the home of the communist party secretary, Mr Jing. Sandra, our Malaysian friend, the man from the Animal Husbandry Bureau and an interpreter had come to inspect sheep. Last year she had given Mr Jing ten sheep. Not just Mr Jing, but ten other families like him.This is, unmistakeably, a very generous gift. In a part of China so poor that families only eat two meals a day, the donation of a free flock of sheep is a life-changing experience. When we arrived in Mr Jing’s home, we were delighted to see 25 adult sheep and lambs living in the pen attached to his house. It is a fairly typical home: windowless, dark and muggy. Until very recently, his sheep lived in his house with him, his wife and three children, as well as all the chickens. We had arrived at 10:00, in time for breakfast. For us this was roasted potatoes with spice, for the children plain rice. We burnt our fingers on the hot potatoes and smiled at each other through the darkness.

School in this part of the world is an abbreviated affair. The teacher ought to arrive at 10:30. He comes on a motorbike from the town an hour away. Today he was late. The government recently changed the law so that primary education is available for free for every child in China. This is not to say that every parent in rural areas can release their children from agricultural duties. Nor does it guarantee the quality of education. However, it does mean that our scholarship programme for primary school girls is now obsolete. The school day finishes at 2:30pm.

While the children sat in their crowded classroom, we watched as Sandra attempted to explain the rudiments of pasture management to the assembled farmers, recipients of our sheep. There are two key, related problems, she was trying to tackle. Firstly, she was trying to encourage the farmers to sow grass seeds where currently they grow potatoes, and then to have the sheep graze on the pasture land. The farmers get 1/2p for a kilo of potatoes whereas fat, healthy sheep sell for as much as £10. The other problem is mating time. When sheep graze on the hillside, as they have done for centuries, they mate according to their own natural instincts. This means that lambs may well be born be born in the height of winter, when grass is low on the ground and survival rate will be low. With well managed pasture, rams and ewes can be separated and mated slightly more scientifically.

As Sandra continued her explanations, the farmers were getting more and more agitated. Through their tobacco smoke, they expressed their dissatisfaction. Neither Sandra, nor the man from the animal husbandry bureau could really understand the problem, except that these new ideas require change and “we’ve always done it that way”.

If our farming friends are so unwilling to modify farming techniques for financial benefit, what hope is there of explaining higher matters to them? Praise God for Christmas. Sandra and her friends have travelled to the village to sing Christmas carols, explain the Nativity story and pray that some of the truth of the words will rest in the hearts of the people and that one day they will give their lives to Jesus.

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